Ideas, and where they come from

I was struck by the strangeness of the human imagination (or, at least, my own imagination) last night.  It was late, I had long turned the computer off to go and do other things – like watch The Great British Bake-Off, to which I’m an addict – but then, at something like 10p.m., I felt compelled to turn the computer back on and work.  While I didn’t actually add anything to my manuscript, I spent some time using the internet for information, and scribbling furiously in my notebook.  For once, I managed to have a notebook to hand!  My husband looked at me fondly, if a little bemusedly, and asked ‘don’t you ever switch off?’

That got me thinking.  It’s important to be able to switch off.  As it happened, I went to bed last night, my brain pulsing with ideas and thoughts, and I couldn’t sleep.  I tossed and turned all night, chewing things over, trying to decide how I’m going to structure my work when I go through it with my editor’s cap on, wondering about other ideas I’ve been having and trying to work out if they belong in my current project or if they deserve space of their own to flourish… and so it went on, for hours and hours.  Eventually at about 3.30a.m. I managed to get some rest, only to wake up again at about 5a.m., my brain abuzz.  This is the reason for the late delivery of your blog, followers, for which I apologise!  It’s an interesting thing to think about – just, hopefully, never again at night-time! – and it did get me pondering the idea of inspiration, and how your brain forms ideas and connections between ideas.

The core idea in the book I’m currently working on came to me about six or seven years ago, when I was engaged in doing postgraduate research into the medieval period.  I remember sitting in the café of the Arts building, avidly absorbing a thick textbook about medieval culture, when one sentence in it took my imagination and wrung it; ideas promptly started flowing out of my brain.  And, typically, I had nothing to write on, and nothing to write with.  I flailed about, desperately, trying to keep the ideas alive in my head, and noted that the people at the table next to me had left some rubbish behind – including a pen.  I grabbed it, silently thanking God, while at the same time noticing that the café had placed some feedback forms on the tables.  These, of course, were designed for customers to let the café know how it was serving their needs, not to allow a rather strange postgraduate to make notes on an idea for a novel, so there wasn’t a whole lot of space.  But I managed it.  In the margins, written very small, anywhere I could find room to put a word, I put one.  And that was the basic germ of the idea I’m now working on.  It has had several incarnations over the years, and more than enough false starts – the version I’m currently writing is by far the fullest growth it has ever seen.  But it all came from one throwaway phrase in a book about the culture of medieval Europe.  That was enough to get my brain making connections, and it was like a waterfall of ideas, once the first step was taken.

It’s exciting when you get an idea that you think can go places.  The high of that feeling is more than matched, however, by the devastation of realising that, while it was a good concept, it doesn’t have enough strength to stand as the core of a book.  There are such highs and lows in this business!  It’s difficult to jettison an idea that you’ve had, and which you’ve cherished, but if it doesn’t work no amount of ‘papering over the cracks’ is going to make it better.  There’s a huge difference, I’ve learned, between a ‘good idea’ – a flash, an image, a clever phrase – and something strong enough to build a world around, or create a character with.  That doesn’t mean these flashes aren’t worth holding on to – they may be worth incorporating into a bigger idea.  Don’t waste anything.

And always, always, always have a pen and paper handy.  Always.  Without fail.  If I could impart one message to other writers, that would be it!

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